[A continuation from “On Covert Operations” and “On Desperation,” chapters three and four of The Explanation of Eliot.]
The object in question was beautifully rendered, detailed and precise. A burnished color, the cool weight of it reassuringly solid in Q’s hands as he examined it, turning it over and over in his hands. This one wasn’t even particularly old; it looked to be a sixteenth century model, and Q had seen older and more beautiful in his time.
But this one… well, he’d never seen an astrolabe capable of wreaking so much havoc. He’d never held a scientific device in his hands that might have been able to bring the world to its knees. Scientific advancement often introduced a certain level of chaos to the world, but this was just—literal. Literally, the thing Q now held cradled in his hands as he sat up in bed, could have killed thousands of people in one fell swoop, sucking the magical energies out of them and funneling them into its user…
“You’re supposed to be asleep,” El said next to him, a hand flopping out and patting clumsily at his back. “I know you haven’t been sleeping well without me.”
“You think quite a bit of yourself,” Q said, but it was half-hearted, because he knew El hadn’t slept the full night through since the last time they’d been able to do so together, and it was the same for him. Of course it was. He set the astrolabe down on the small table beside the bed, and curled back into the crumpled sheets next to the warmth of El’s body. There was still an indentation on the other side, from where Margaret had been curled until just hours before, when she’d sneaked away to return to Jules. “Maybe I wouldn’t have had to wake up in the middle of the night and study our successfully purloined object of indescribable power, if you had let me look at it earlier.”
Even in the dark, Q could feel El lift an eyebrow at him. “Earlier, we were a bit busy.”
That was true. Q was pretending he was still sore all over, although of course soreness never lasted with them. He nuzzled back into the hollow beneath El’s throat, smelled the scent of him, tried to understand how he could have gone without it for even a few weeks while they’d worked this impossible, grueling, dangerous job. Only now, with El back where he belonged, and the danger over, did Q allow himself to feel the full extent of his fear. Yes, they couldn’t die. Probably. But with so many dangerous magicians, all seeking power for their own ends… there were plenty of consequences frightening enough to contemplate.
“And in any case,” El said to him, the words sleepy and muffled in the top of Q’s head, “it’s just a hunk of metal, Q. We’ll destroy it in the morning.”
These were the moments that kept their relationship from growing stale, and Q liked to remind himself of this when he felt himself start to get annoyed. “I know it’s dangerous,” Q said, patient but hopefully not patronizing, “but it’s also incredibly beautiful. Things like this…” he gestured towards the astrolabe, “we can learn so much from them. Not just about magic, but about people. The magicians who created it over a hundred years ago… what were they thinking about? What did they intend to do with it, and did they succeed in their goal? How did the magic manifest? Is there some large-scale disaster somewhere in the past, attributable to magic instead of the natural world, and we just don’t know it?”
“Q,” El said, the sound almost a moan. “Please talk about this with Jules in the morning, I’m exhausted.”
“Are you letting me out of bed in the morning?” Q asked.
Q laughed, and kissed the bit of skin nearest his mouth, just above the collarbone. “Insatiable.”
“I’m beginning to think you were more eager for the astrolabe than you were for my return,” El said, and in a distant past, the words would be a tacit plea for reassurance, and Q would give it to him, would expound upon his devotion and love until El was forced to believe him.
But these days… “At least the astrolabe is new and shiny,” Q said. “And besides, we’re destroying it in the morning, as you so rightly point out. You, I’ve got to put up with for the rest of eternity.”
Of course Q wouldn’t have cared about this magical artifact if it meant further separation from El. Of course he’d forsake all manner of intellectual curiosity in the service of keeping El close to him, safe and happy. But that didn’t mean he didn’t care about anything else. Magic fascinated him. History fascinated him, in that way that just because he’d lived through some of it didn’t mean he understood it any better than most humans of the mortal variety. It was a shame, really, that the astrolabe was too dangerous to keep around. Q would never wish to use it for its apparent purpose, but so much magic, finely crafted, a unique application of many apparently contradictory principles…
“Where’s Pen?” El asked, and Q was surprised to find him still awake, after he’d failed to respond to Q’s latest quip.
“I think he and Jules were making plans for cleanup,” Q said. “Last I checked. But I’m sure M dragged Jules to bed, so…”
“So I missed him too, you should call him in here,” El said.
“You do it,” Q says. “I’m too comfortable to move.”
In the end, Q did concede to allow his mental wards to slip down just the tiniest bit, alerting Penny that his presence was wanted. When Pen entered the room, he made for El’s other side, ready to curl into him, but paused next to Q for a moment, staring down at the astrolabe.
“It’s a shame, almost, to destroy it,” he said.
Q grinned at him in the dark, and El groaned. “Come to bed,” he said. “I’ll remember this the next time you all try and send me away for a mission. I don’t even get the hero’s welcome I deserve—”
“Everyone in this house heard the welcome you got from Q,” Penny said, grumpy, but he let his hand fall from where it had been reaching out towards the astrolabe, and he flopped down, throwing an arm around El’s waist so his hand landed against Q’s elbow. “Now go to sleep.”
Q followed his instructions, but he thought about the astrolabe as he drifted off. As Penny said, it would be a shame to see it destroyed. He knew Jules would say the same thing in the morning.
El probably had the right of it. The very fact that Q’s fingers were itching, even now, to examine it again, to run every magical test he could think of, to disentangle the fibers of fantastical energy and learn their every secret… well, it all meant that getting rid of it was the right thing to do. And they would, in the morning. Or. Or maybe in a day or two. After all, there was so much left to learn.